Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Unfinished Obelisk

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Religion played a more than crucial role in the lives of the Ancient Egyptians, and the overwhelming costs and labor needed to produce, transport and erect religious artifacts, such as obelisks and pyramids, was insignificant compared to its final gratification to the Egyptian people and their rulers. Obelisks where placed, in pairs, in front of or into temples, such as the temple of Karnak in Luxor. They were believed to act as antennas that channeled cosmic energy down to Earth.

An obelisk is a single, quadrangular, monolithic stone wider at the base, tapering gently as it rises upwards, ending with a pyramidion summit. Sometimes the pyramidion was covered with a gold and silver alloy called electrum. The electrum cap duplicates the glare of the Sun as it emits its rays to the earth. The four sides of the obelisk were inscribed and decorated with hieroglyphs. The inscriptions were usually dedications to the Sun god, Amun-Ra or commemorations of a life of a king or queen.

According to the ancient mythology of Egypt, and from the belief in the concept of “Ma’at” (harmony and truth), we know that the obelisks came in pairs and that there were two in heaven and two on earth in every age. The obelisk was associated with the worship of the solar cult, and were called tekhenu by the Egyptians. The Greeks were the ones who called them “obelisk” or little spits (items used for roasting meat over a fire). The oldest obelisk was discovered in Abusir, dating back from the Old Kingdom during the reign of King Niuserre (2449-2417 BC), but it was only 10 feet tall.

To be a success the obelisk had to be a giant single piece of rock, if the cosmic energy was to travel down through it. If completed, the Unfinished Obelisk would have been the largest yet at 1,168 tones and standing 137 feet tall. The tallest today is the Lateran Obelisk in Rome, at 105 feet and weighing 455 tons, which originally stood at the temple of Karnak in Luxor. The project of the Unfinished Obelisk was abandoned because during its extraction, a profound crack was discovered near the center of the obelisk. The bottom side of The Obelisk is still attached to the bedrock, giving insight into the stone-work techniques adopted by the ancient Egyptians.

The Unfinished Obelisk is located in the Northern Quarry in Aswan. It was commissioned by Queen Hatshepsut to commemorate her 16th anniversary on the throne, and would have been the world’s largest piece of stone ever handled. The Obelisk if finished would have had to be transported by boat on the Nile, to be erected at the Karnak Temple.

The marks left behind on the rock face by ancient rock cutters and the tools they left behind sheds light on how such an accomplishment was undertaken. To carve out the huge stone block as a single piece, a row of holes were made with wooden wedges driven into them. Water was then poured on to the wood and as the wood expanded it caused the rock to split. The obelisk was then chiseled into shape by workers with dolomite rock, which is even harder than granite. Heated bricks were then placed on the surface of the obelisk and when it was sufficiently hot, water was poured on, causing the uneven parts to flake off, giving the granite a smooth finish.

The quarry site has been recently renovated and equipped to accommodate tourists. Being an open-air museum it is protected by the Egyptian government as an archaeological site. Although The Obelisk never came out of its bedrock it was not a complete failure for today we are grateful, as this Unfinished Obelisk has taught us more than any other monument in Egypt!

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem